Shortlines, whose designation by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is a Class III carrier (terminal and switching railroads also are included under the Class III status), by far make up the bulk of railroads in the country today, totaling some 500. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) defines shortlines as any railroad earning less than $10 million of annual operating revenue. While shortline railroads are by far the smallest in the industry in both terms of miles of track (some are as short as one mile or less, such as the Little Kanawha Railroad located in Parkersburg, West Virginia) and money earned, they usually are the most interesting. For instance if you have an interest in older locomotives they abound on shortlines. Anything from little switchers like General Electric (GE) 44-tonners and American Locomotive Company (Alco) S-1s, built in the 1930s and 1940s, to General Motors’ EMD line of GP7s (GP models are commonly known as “Geeps” by railroaders and railfans) and SD9s (built later in the 1950s). All of these, plus many other types and from many other long-gone manufacturers, can still be found on these little railroads racking up the miles.
What shortlines lack in size they more than make up for in services they provide their customers, a trait which they are best known for. Shortlines literally live or die by the sometimes few precious carloads they are able to haul each year and cannot afford to give up a customer or two to make their bottom-line numbers look better (as is sometimes the case with their much large cousins, Class Is and large Regionals, although Regionals are also known for their very good customer service). Some shortlines are even in operation because of only one customer they serve, and if that customer happens to leave for whatever reason then the railroad must either close down or enter a dormant state while waiting for a new customer(s) to appear.
A good example of this would be the Elk River Railroad in Gassaway, West Virginia which was originally created in 1989 to haul coal from a new mine that had recently opened but after it closed ten years later in 1999, the railroad has sat basically dormant since that time and today occasionally handles car-repair work. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum are large shortlines that operate several hundred miles of track and are nearly Class II, regionals. These include names like RJ Corman, Iowa Northern Railway, Livonia, Avon & Lakeville, and others. For historical sake there also those companies which have been in operation for more than 100 years such as the Indiana Harbor Belt, St. Marys Railroad, Ann Arbor, and others. The bottom line is that you can find shortlines of all shapes and sizes around the country.
This grittiness in the face of adversity is another reason shortlines have a uniqueness that is all their own and sometimes their very being keeps a rail line from abandonment, not to mention the help they provide their local economy (far too often rail lines are abandoned and left for dead when they could still be serving a purpose and helping the economy in which they are located). Even today, new Class III railroads continue to spring up like the once-dormant, historic Grafton & Upton Railroad in Massachusetts which has sprung to life and the new owner has a vast array of new plans for the company. Of course, not all shortlines are privately owned as you may think. Just like the classic, fallen flag lines many are being gobbled up by large conglomerates such as RailAmerica, Genesee & Wyoming, Watco Companies, and a number of others.
Defunct, Historic Shortlines
While these lines continue to keep their names, liveries and management is replaced by the new owners. Also, while the shortline phenomenon is a relatively new trend only 30 years old or so, at least in the sense that it has become quite popular with the large Class Is selling off hundreds of miles of secondary lines there are historic companies that no longer operate. These include names like the Maryland & Pennsylvania ("Ma & Pa"), Virginia & Truckee ("Queen Of The Shortlines"), and others. Lastly, for more information on a number of the shortlines which operate throughout the country please click on their appropriate link listed above.
So, if you get the chance and know of a local shortline in your area be sure and see it in action if the opportunity presents itself (many only operate on certain days of the week). While watching a Class I container train moving at 60+ mph across the Heartland is always thrilling, nothing can likewise beat observing a local shortline switching its customer(s) and moving those cars between there, the interchange point (where Regionals and shortlines swap loaded and empty cars with the big Class Is), and back again. If you want to see the human side of railroading, no one does it better than the shortline. To learn more about Class III, shortlines please click here to visit the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association's (ASLRRA) website. This member organization is similar in nature to the Association of American Railroads but geared towards smaller, non-Class I carriers. Finally, here is a guide to most shore lines operating around the country.